Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I wish to share my time with Deputies Ferris and Crowe.
This Bill seeks to enshrine the right to adequate and appropriate housing in the 1937 Constitution. The right to housing is central to Sinn Féin's commitment to building an Ireland of equals and has long been central to our housing policy.
The context of the introduction of this legislation, the Twenty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution (No. 2) Bill, is an unprecedented housing crisis, affecting virtually every family, as well as the failure of successive Governments and especially the current one to address that crisis. After six years of unbroken reign which came during the biggest economic boom this State has ever known, this Administration managed to increase the number of homeless and the social housing list to more than 48,000 applicants, representing in excess of 100,000 people.
The average price of a new house across the State increased from €125,000 in 1998 to more than €222,000, or by 177%, by the end of June last. The average price of a second-hand house across the State in the same period increased from €134,000 to more than €267,000, or by 199%. Official figures for 2002 showed 5,581 homeless in the Twenty-six Counties. Tenants' rights are unprotected, housing for the disabled is underfunded and those people are badly catered for, and Traveller accommodation programmes have not been implemented.
Sinn Féin believes that the absence of a constitutional right to housing has contributed to the severe housing crisis and resulted in a poor commitment from Government and officials to address the housing issue. A lack of adequate housing and homelessness are inextricably connected to increased levels of mental illness, marginalisation and disenfranchisement. Our amending Bill would force social policy to be centred on delivering this basic right as opposed to the current situation where the delivery of adequate housing is left to the whim of politicians and dependent on the economic climate and political priorities. A constitutional right to housing would oblige statutory bodies to provide adequate and appropriate housing for all the people of this State and would ensure that a basic standard of housing provision would be upheld. It would also ensure that the voiceless and most marginalised in society would not be penalised by their lack of political strength or representation.
The wording of the Sinn Féin amendment is in line with the language of other fundamental rights measures contained in the Constitution. The Bill states: "The State recognises the right of all persons to adequate and appropriate housing." We believe that adequate and appropriate housing, in accordance with various United Nations instruments, refers to accommodation and housing which is secure, affordable, access ible and culturally adequate. It also involves adequate privacy, space, security, lighting and ventilation, basic infrastructure and adequate facilities and services. The word "appropriate" takes account of the cultural requirements of differing sections of Irish society such as the right of Travellers to accommodation which is appropriate to their culture and tradition.
The State would be obliged to recognise the right to adequate and appropriate housing and respect this right. The Bill also states: "Where practicable, the enjoyment of this right should in the first place be ensured by the initiative and effort of each person." This qualification ensures that priority will be given to those social groups living in unfavourable conditions and ensures that legislation will not be designed to benefit already advantaged social groups at the expense of others. The needs of the most disadvantaged must come first.
The Bill further states: "Where persons or their dependants are unable sufficiently to exercise or enjoy the right to adequate and appropriate housing, the State, as guardian of the common good, guarantees, as far as possible, by its laws to defend and vindicate this right, in accordance with the principles of social justice." This ensures State intervention where a person, for whatever reason, is unable to access adequate and appropriate housing. The inclusion of the words "as far as possible" qualifies the obligations on the State in similar terms to the qualification in Article 40.3.1º and, therefore, does not, as may be suggested by the Government parties, leave the Oireachtas with no option but to discharge the cost, whatever it might be, as determined by the Judiciary.
It is important to emphasise that Sinn Féin has not asserted, and does not assert, as the Government will no doubt infer, that the insertion of a constitutional right to housing will on its own magically resolve the complex housing and homeless crisis. It represents a first step, which must be followed by legislation which will bring about the progressive realisation of this right. We foresee that a constitutional right to housing will bring about a fundamental change in how we as legislators address the housing crisis and the housing needs of the people of this State.
Following the enshrining in the Constitution of the right to housing, Sinn Féin envisages a review of all relevant legislation with a view to making the housing Acts compatible with the constitutional right to housing. A review of existing housing policy would also be required. Sinn Féin also envisages that a national housing strategy, with targets and priorities for the progressive realisation of this new right, would be developed at an early stage. Legislation would have to be brought forward to support the right to housing and to ensure access to adequate and appropriate housing. In the words of the Simon Community: "Legislation would have the dual effect of making the right to housing meaningful in the short-term, and overcoming the difficulties of the judiciary guiding the legislature on the protection of rights in the absence of clear policy." The realisation of the right to housing will be brought about through public investment, Government regulation of the economy and the land market and incorporation of the right to housing in the overall development objectives of the State.
The Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Noel Ahern, recently stated, "the Government's view is that it would be inappropriate to include a legal right to housing in the Constitution", yet he does not think it is inappropriate to ignore the housing crisis.